You may have been led to believe that healthy omega-3 EPA and DHA fatty acids cannot be obtained from a vegetarian or vegan diet, though this is not quite the case. While omega-3 EPA is only found in fish, seafood, meat and a small amount in algae, our bodies are actually able to convert plant-sourced omega-3 fatty acids to the same types of fat found in fish if we support this conversion by eating a nutrient-dense diet.
This conversion is limited, depending on your nutrient status and the type of omega-3 fats you are consuming, but with the right knowledge of types of fats and vitamins and minerals required for optimal metabolism, you can certainly manage to get a healthy omega-3 intake from a plant-based diet.
Not all omega-3s are the same
There are several vegan-friendly plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as linseeds and echium seeds, although not all omega-3 fatty acids are the same. Different types of omega-3 fatty acids have varying chemical structures and therefore have different effects on health. The omega-3 fatty acids found in plant oils are ‘short-chain’, meaning that they are made up of a smaller number of carbon atoms, making the chain short in length. Fish, on the other hand, contains high amounts of the ‘long-chain’ omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA, so with more carbon atoms these fatty acids are longer in length. The longer chain fatty acids are those that produce anti-inflammatory effects in the body by producing hormone-like substances called eicosanoids and are also themselves important for brain function and heart health.
Fatty acid metabolism
If you are vegetarian or vegan, and would like to achieve the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 EPA without eating fish, you need to support your body in metabolising the short-chain fatty acids to the long-chain fatty acids. Our bodies are equipped to convert fatty acids to a certain extent, so when we eat short-chain fatty acids such as echium seed oil, our bodies can metabolise these fats into the same chemical structure as the long-chain omega-3 EPA found in fish. In this process, the amount of fatty acids that are converted depends on the type of fat consumed and also the presence of other vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, vitamin B6 and zinc to support enzymes needed for conversion.
Echium seed oil generates high amounts of omega-3 EPA
Echium seeds are produced from tall purple flowering plants which are native to the Canary Islands and are now also grown in the UK. An unusual seed with incredible health benefits, especially when it comes to vegetarian and vegan health.
A top oil of choice for vegetarians and vegans, echium seed oil naturally contains a perfect balance of omega-3, -6 and -9. Echium seed oil is considered to be anti-inflammatory as it contains twice as much omega-3 compared to the omega-6 and omega-9 content, and can therefore help to balance the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. As the majority of commonly available vegetables oils and nuts and seeds are rich in omega-6, vegetarians and vegans often require more omega-3 fatty acids to achieve a healthy balance.
The unique feature of echium seed oil is that it contains the rare omega-3 fatty acid SDA, which is converted easily to EPA in the body. The high conversion of omega-3 SDA to EPA (about 5 times the rate of ALA found in flaxseed) makes echium seed oil one of the most effective plant oils for reducing inflammation. Echium seed oil may therefore help to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and skin disorders. Also, as EPA is required for the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, consuming omega-3 SDA from echium seed oil may also support mood and brain function.
Not only is echium seed a great source of omega-3, it contains the omega-6 fatty acid GLA, beneficial for balancing hormones and skin health. Omega-9 oleic acid is also present in echium seed oil, otherwise found in olive oil, typically rich in a Mediterranean-type diet. This optimal balance of omegas-3, -6 and -9 makes echium seed oil ideal for general wellbeing.
Echium seed versus flaxseed oil & algae
Echium seed is the most effective plant oil for reducing inflammation as it is the precursor to omega-3 EPA, but there are also a few other plant based oils to consider when understanding the differences.
The most commonly consumed omega-3 rich oil for vegetarians is possibly from linseeds (also known as flaxseed oil) as they are the richest source of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA; however, this type of short-chain omega-3 fatty acid then has to be converted to the omega-3 SDA (found directly in echium seeds) and then to omega-3 EPA (found in fish), so in reality only 5-8% of this is generally converted to EPA. As the conversion for linseeds is limited compared to echium seeds, consumption needs to be very high to achieve the anti-inflammatory effects. Although linseed oil is not the best plant-sourced oil to rely on to reduce inflammation in the body, ground linseeds are a great source of fibre, vitamins & minerals and lignans.
Algae oil is another option for vegetarians, as algae is the food consumed by fish predominantly containing the long-chain omega-3 DHA, and a very small amount of EPA. As EPA is the omega-3 fatty acid required for regulating inflammation, the high amount of DHA rather than EPA in algae is not optimum as EPA and DHA compete for enzymes in the body. This high ratio of DHA to EPA found in algae is, however, suitable during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as DHA is required for the foetus’ brain structure.
Other plant oils derived from seeds such as chia seed oil, hemp seed oil and pumpkin seed oil contain the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA, similar to linseeds, and therefore conversion from these oils is also not as efficient when compared with omega-3 SDA found in echium seed oil. These seeds are also higher in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3, giving a less desirable ratio if anti-inflammatory effects are sought.